Make Change Count: How You Can Help Rough Sleepers in Brighton and Hove

The Make Change Count campaign, which is being launched today (7th August 2017), seeks to raise awareness about what support is available in the city for people sleeping rough and offering advice on how best to help.

The best way to help someone sleeping rough is through professional help.
Brighton Housing Trust, along with St Mungo’s, Equinox, Nightstop and Project Antifreeze, are highlighting the practical support available all year round in the city and how best to help rough sleepers. The campaign is supported Brighton & Hove City Council and Sussex Police.

Giving money on the street can be counter-productive and lead to people staying in their current situation when more effective help is available. The various charities make sure those in need have hot meals, access to shower facilities, clothing and support from outreach workers to move people away from the street to rebuild their lives.

My colleague, Nikki Homewood, who is BHT’s Director of Services, said: “The Make Change Count campaign is all about getting the right help at the right time for those who are sleeping on our streets. We’re sharing information on how residents can refer people they are concerned about and providing an alternative giving option to donating on the street.

“The campaign aims to help people make informed decisions when giving money or other items to rough sleepers. We are keen to make clear that we’re not telling anyone how they should spend their money, that’s a matter of personal choice.
“We’d like to share the experiences we’ve gained from many years of working with rough sleepers. We know that moving off the streets is a difficult thing to do, no matter how much people want a better standard of living. People sleeping rough are often very vulnerable and have lost confidence to plan for the future because of the circumstances they’re in. Support is needed to help people rebuild their lives.

“We’re keen to all work together to give people the best chance for the future. People understandably want to help those living on the streets, and giving to someone right in front of you is a natural reaction. But there can be better ways to help and we’re asking people to think about how they can really make their change count.”

How you can help:

  • Donate today by texting UMCC17 £3 to 70070
  • Contact Streetlink or on 0300 500 0914 with information about where people are rough sleeping is a way to make sure they are known to support agencies offering professional help. The rough sleeper outreach team, run by St Mungo’s, responds to details given to Streetlink and goes out to see all known rough sleepers in the city. The team discusses a person’s needs, working with them to explore options to try to move them off the streets and into accommodation.

Cllr Clare Moonan, lead councillor for rough sleeping, said: “The Make Change Count campaign can transform and, even save, lives. In Brighton & Hove we have a wide range of services and support designed to help those in need but there is always more we can do to help. Working together, everyone in this caring city really make a difference.”

More information about the Make Change Count charities:

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My doubts about the value of Housing First

There is a growing consensus that Housing First is the way to go in combatting homelessness. Housing First is defined as “an approach that offers permanent, affordable housing as quickly as possible for individuals and families experiencing homelessness, and then provides the supportive services and connections to the community-based supports people need to keep their housing and avoid returning to homelessness”.

The concept of Housing First has been around since 1988 but in recent years it has been championed by Homeless Link and, as a result, has attracted more interest and support.

The concept, as applied in the U.K., is that street homeless people, usually with addictions and chaotic lifestyles, get housing and open-ended support in order to avoid further periods of homelessness. This is not conditional on any change of behaviour or the need to engage with support services.

There is very informative research carried out by Joanne Bretherton and Nicholas Pleace from the Centre for Housing Policy at the University of York that is very positive about the nine pilots that have been run around England, including one in Brighton run by CGL (Change, Grow, Live, formerly CRI – Crime Reduction Initiatives).

I can see the positive aspects and achievements of Housing First, but I don’t think it is the panacea it is sometimes presented, and I think it has some fundamental flaws in principle.

The research found many positive outcomes had been achieved, for example:

  • 74% remained housed for over a year;
  • Bad or very bad health fell from 43% to 28%; and
  • Bad or very bad mental health fell from 52% to 18%.

But while there have been improvements in other areas, the situation remains depressingly poor:

  • Drug use fell only from 66% to 53%;
  • Those who “drank until they felt drunk” reduced only from 71% to 56%; and
  • Anti-social behaviour, compared to the year before entering Housing First, remained at 53% compared to 78%.

I am not sure whether we can regard a scheme as a success when the majority continue to use drugs, drink until they are drunk, and continue to commit anti-social behaviour.

In other areas of their lives, the improvements, while welcome, are not very encouraging. Begging dropped from 71% to 51%. Why, we should ask, are people who are housed, and getting support to claim benefits, still begging? 36% of those housed had been arrested, compared to 53% before they were housed.

For most of us, when we meet someone for the first time, the first two bits of information we share about ourselves are our names and what we do, be it paid or unpaid, work or hobbies. In the Housing First research, there was absolutely no change in the number of clients entering work, remaining stubbornly low at just 3%. Those in Housing First schemes are at risk of continuing to be defined by what they do: drinking until they are drunk, using drug, begging, perpetrating anti-social behaviour. Housing First hardly helps people to achieve their aspirations and their full potential.

My doubts about Housing First are those very principles that its advocates regard as its strengths:

  • It is based on a harm reduction model;
  • It offers open-ended support;
  • It is not conditional on engagement: and
  • Retention is not based on behaviour modification.

At its heart, Housing First lacks ambition, that change is possible, that people can achieve their aspirations and full potential. It embeds dependency, on welfare benefits and support. As one interviewee put it: he gets “help with everything”. At BHT, part of our ethos has seen a move away from staff always doing things for clients, helping with everything, to promoting change so that people can take advantage of the opportunities available to them so that they can combat their homelessness, poverty, mental ill health and addictions.

Economically, can the modest savings be regarded as adequate? The report found that savings were £15,000 per person per annum. While that is not to be dismissed, by being more ambitious, greater savings can be made. Our Addiction Services, for example, will see 60 individuals each year with a history of homelessness and addiction becoming abstinent and housed. Most go on to training and employment. Relationships strengthen, they don’t beg or steal, and their health improves. As a result, crime rates plummet and there are no demands on the police and criminal justice, there are fewer ambulance call outs, fewer attendances at A&E, welfare dependency reduces, people begin paying taxes.

For how long should landlords tolerate rent arrears and damage to property, disturbance to neighbours and the community excused, high levels of public funds be expended?

Housing First is an open-ended commitment. It would be great if we had open-ended resources, if we had plentiful housing, if we had homes with no neighbours being impacted by anti-social behaviour. But even then, I don’t find it acceptable, morally or economically, to leave people in action addiction, committing anti-social behaviour, begging and offending, when better outcomes are possible. Surely we can do better.

Why is it that some homeless people don’t seek or accept help?

Why are there some people who apparently do not seek assistance when sleeping rough? This could be for a host of reasons including mental ill-health, because they are running away from something and do not wish to have to identify themselves, that they might have had bad experiences previously in homelessness services, that begging while rough sleeping can be a lucrative source of income, or because services did not offer what they want.

This last point is significant and I deliberately said “want” rather than “need”.

In Brighton and Hove there are plenty of services offered to people who are sleeping rough. Yet when I walk around the city I see people who are bedded down between 8 AM and 11 AM. That is the precise time that First Base Days Centre is open and providing, free of charge, the services that people need, firstly to survive on the streets and, secondly and as importantly, to get off the streets.

When I am asked for money, I suggest that the individual goes to First Base. I have had replies including: “I don’t have enough money to get in” when there is no charge at First Base to get the basics like a breakfast, shower and clean and dry clothes. Someone else said that First Base wouldn’t let them in because they have a dog. Again, not true. First Base does allow homeless people to bring their dogs in with them.

There is an issue if people are behaving in an unacceptable way because of alcohol or drug use, and this might get them excluded for a day or, very occasionally, longer.

There seems to me to be a group of people who have become entrenched in makeshift settlements around the city. Whether that is a so-called “life style choice” is a matter that I’m not too keen to debate. While there might not be enough hostel of other affordable housing options, there are services for people that means that nobody should have to beg. Some people might not want to address problems that took them onto the streets in the first place or keep them there now. Yet such services might be the very things that they need.

The ethical issue for the city is whether there should be a greater imperative for people to seek help.

I am often asked what people should do when they see someone on the streets asking for money. Begging and rough sleeping are very different issues, and often involve different groups of people. I would not encourage giving money but would recommend that the person is directed towards services like First Base.  If they are homeless and destitute, they will use these services.  If they are merely begging, they won’t.

And if someone moved by the plight of a homeless person wants to make a practical difference, they could support one of the very many very good charities working with homeless people in Brighton and Hove, not least First Base.

Northampton Borough Council, in a report to its cabinet, said: “Northampton now has an established community of people who are choosing to sleep rough as a lifestyle and all resolutely refusing to leave the streets”.

The use of language like “lifestyle choice” is bound to result in a number of people condemning what the council is trying to say. It is easy to use a choice of words to condemn what an authority is really trying to achieve.

The report does talk about the danger of rough sleeping and the detrimental impact it has on the health and well-being. And the report contains a new strategy to reduce the number of people sleeping rough in Northampton by 60% by November 2016 and to “as close as possible to zero” by this time next year.

Persistent begging is almost always linked to addiction

In response to an item on homelessness and begging that I posted a couple of weeks ago, the following Opinion column by Jean Calder was printed in the Brighton Argus discussing the relationship between addictions, homelessness and begging.  I felt it was worth reproducing it here:

“I’ve been pleased to see an increase in local concern about homelessness, but confess to irritation about recent debate on begging. Commentators seem very reluctant to acknowledge that persistent street homelessness and begging is almost always linked to alcohol or drug addiction. A cynic might suggest this is because of widespread recreational drug use among the city’s middle classes.

“Certainly destitute addicts haven’t been helped by the city’s affluent opinion-formers, many of whom have for years minimised the role of addictions in homelessness, preferring to call for decriminalisation and ‘shooting galleries’, so that addicts can inject in comfort.

“Affluent substance abusers tend to keep their homes and avoid the criminal justice system. Poor addicts, in contrast, have to find money for their costly drugs of choice in any way they can – usually on the street, by theft, begging, exploitation, prostitution or drug dealing. Some get arrested.

“This isn’t fair, but there’s nothing others can do about that. It isn’t a human right to be able to pursue life-limiting addiction and fellow citizens have no moral duty to help with the costs of supply. In fact, the opposite is the case.

“Addicts aren’t helped by kindly souls who give them money when they say they are homeless and desperate. Such people are desperate, but regrettably not for food and shelter. Sometimes they already have access to both. Addiction has them in its grip.

“Our responsibility is to ensure addicts have access to the things that can genuinely save their lives – treatment facilities, long term specialist supported housing and the constant guidance of people committed to aid their recovery.”

Begging in Brighton: what is the best way for you to help?

The Brighton Argus have asked me about begging in Brighton.  This is my response, published in the paper on 11th February 2016.

A positive thing about Brighton and Hove is that people are increasingly concerned about those sleeping on our streets. They want to help, and long may that last.  One way that people express that concern is by giving to those begging. But that is rarely the best way of helping.

There are very few people who are destitute and rely on handouts. There are services providing food, hot drinks and help to those without a home. For example, BHT’s First Base Day Centre offers breakfast, lunch, hot drinks, showers, clean and dry clothes and, crucially, advice and support to help people to end their rough sleeping. There is no need for someone to be bedded down and begging at 10.00am.

I have been approached by people asking for money saying they need £10 to get into a homeless shelter. But none of the shelters in Brighton ask for money upfront.

Some of the people begging aren’t homeless. I’ve heard someone boast that he can make £800 in a week begging, and I know that he has accommodation.

Concerns have been expressed that the police have prosecuted people for begging. I think the police should be commended because they do a lot of good work engaging positively with the street community and I believed they only prosecuted people in exceptional circumstances.

So what should you do when faced with someone looking cold and ill. By all means get them a sandwich or a coffee, but if you want to make a real difference, support those charities who change lives by helping people to move off the streets.

(The version published in the Argus stated that I had heard that someone had boasted that he could make £800 in a day from begging. It should have read ‘a week’. This error was mine and reminds me I should proof read what I have written!)

How honest should we be with homeless people?

There is a report in today’s Brighton Argus about a blog post by the Roman Catholic priest at St Mary Magdalen’s on Upper North Street, Brighton, Father Ray Blake. His blogs are often controversial, and he has taken a swipe at me in the past. Nevertheless (or perhaps because of that) his blog is worth reading.

In fact, the item in question was posted in early August. In ‘The trouble with the poor’ he writes:

“The trouble with the poor is that they are messy.

“There is a secluded area between the church and our hall, a passage, occasionally we find someone has got a few cardboard boxes together and has slept there and if it has been raining leaves a sodden blanket, cardboard there to be cleaned up, often it also smells of urine and there is often excrement there and sometimes a used needle or two.

There is a man who comes into the church, especially during the trad Mass and during the silence of the Canon will pray aloud, “Jesus, I want you to bless Fr Ray and …., and God, can you persuade the good people here to give to the poor, I am poor”, unchecked he will take his cap off and have a collection. It makes a mess of our prayers, it stops some coming to Mass here.

“If they are not doing that they are ringing the door bell at every hour of the day and night, and they tell lies. They tell you their Gran is dying in Southampton and they need the train fare, you give it to them and if you don’t find them drunk in the street they are back the next day and the other Gran is dying in Hastings this time.”

The point of Father Ray’s blog is that he is comfortable in his life and doesn’t want it messed up. He writes “…I have grown complacent in my lifestyle, I don’t want it changed, the message of the Gospels seem to be let the poor into it to mess it up a little”.

No doubt some people will be horrified by Father Ray’s view. He is saying it as he sees it, something that is not always welcomed in the tolerant, inclusive city that is Brighton and Hove.

Earlier this week I had an exchange with a homeless man who was causing a terrible nuisance outside my office, and had tried to punch a couple of his fellow street drinkers. I called the police who attended and dealt well with the situation. I went down and identified myself to the police and told the drinkers that it was me who had called the police.

One of the drinkers (the one who had thrown the punches and had chased another into a lane of moving traffic), challenged my decision to call the police by saying: “But I’m homeless”. My response was to tell him that with his behaviour he would probably stay homeless and even if he got accommodation he would probably lose it unless his behaviour improved. I wasn’t condemning him for being homeless but for being an unpleasant, anti-social thug.

A former member of staff once complained to me that her client had been unfairly treated because he was turned away from an interview at our Recovery Project because he had arrived an hour late. “But he lives a chaotic lifestyle”, my then colleague pleaded. “You should make allowances”. My response was: “It I was his dealer he would have arrived five minutes early”.

The point of this post is to ask: how honest should we be with people? My view is that it is patronising and dishonest to be anything other than blunt, realistic and to the point.

Suspending judgement on Suspended Coffee

Have you heard about ‘suspended coffee’, the new occurrence where a customer will go into a coffee shop, ask for a hot drink for themselves and another (or more) ‘suspended’?  They pay for the total number ordered.  Then, people who are homeless, out of work, or just short of money can walk into a coffee shop and ask if there are any ‘suspended’ coffees. If there are, they will be served a hot drink free of charge.

There is now a ‘Suspended Coffee’ Facebook page

I have misgivings about the whole thing, and that makes me feel quite guilty.  Of course I don’t want to deny anyone a hot drink, particularly when it is as cold as it has been. But I wonder whether it is the best way to help those who are homeless or destitute.

Over the years I have been asked whether you should give money to those begging on the streets.  It is an individual decision, and my personal choice is not to.

Of course it must be up to the individual to decide whether they wish to buy a ‘suspended coffee’ for someone.  They will need to have confidence that the retailer will, in fact, pass on the coffee to the intended beneficiary.

It is a shame that the tax affairs of one of the largest coffee chains seeks to minimise its tax liabilities, although it is unlikely that homeless people would benefit from normalising their tax affairs.

I am somewhat of a hypocrite.  At BHT we constantly ask for donations, in cash and in kind, to help those men and women who are in the greatest need.  We have an Amazon wish list (another company with its own tax controversy) where we ask people to buy essential items for clients including thermal underwear, socks, and coats.

During summer heat waves (for those who can’t remember that far back, a heat wave is “a prolonged period of excessively hot weather”!) we have been grateful to the wonderful people at Life Water who have donated thousands of bottles of water to help keep our clients hydrated.

So why is it ok for me to encourage gifts through BHT to our clients, rather than a more immediate act of giving? The only justification I can give is that we are an organisation that promotes change, and your gifts to us might help us engage and assist people off the streets.

But there again, I am not sure. My colleague Rob Robinson is a great fan of ‘Suspended Coffee’.  He says that those people who are on the streets are excluded on so many levels.  By experiencing the atmosphere of a coffee shop, they might just reassess their aspirations and seek help.

I’m confused.  I guess I will just have to suspend a final judgement.